Imagine That: Imagination Comes from the Heart
If you’re a regular reader, you have most certainly seen me sing the praises of the child's imagination more than once. I strongly believe that childhood should be full of magic, and I try to be conscious of my role in that. Creativity and imagination should be nurtured at every turn, and kids should be supplied with ample time to be kids.
It’s no coincidence at all that many of my favorite books, games, and movies have imagination as a major theme. Oftentimes the importance of the imagination is tied together with the innocence of childhood - and I’m always left reflecting on the meaning of life and feeling quite a bit of nostalgia too.
So when I recently stumbled upon Imagine That in an independent bookstore in Colorado, I was immediately and understandably entranced. This picture book by Jonathan D. Voss not only features imagination as a major theme - it’s an unabashed love letter to the imagination. And I have immediately shortlisted it as one of the best picture books of 2019.
Imagine That is the second picture book in the Hoot & Olive series. Olive is a little girl and Hoot is her stuffed-animal owl friend. Their friendship is at once natural and endearing - and I think they’ll go down in history as beloved characters. I must say I get very strong vibes of Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh. Olive has a big heart and a big imagination - and, like Pooh, Hoot strikes me as a kind-hearted simpleton with a penchant for quirky phrasing.
In fact, the entire book gives me some of the exact same feelings I get when I read Winnie the Pooh - pure comfort and a happy heart. It has silliness, friendship, adventure, love, and imagination - and it’s all tied together into a very special package with truly stunning illustrations.
The illustration found on the dust jacket in particular is a true work of art that I’d very happily frame for the wall. Hoot and Olive are sitting on a small boat dock dangling their feet over the edge and looking at their reflection in the water. It’s a beautiful picture in its own right, even if you don’t notice what’s special about it. But if you flip the picture upside down you’ll actually see the world of their imagination hidden in the water’s reflection.
I absolutely adore this image. To me it’s a powerful reminder that the child’s imagination can be running full throttle underneath the surface at all times - and sometimes that can be hidden away from the jaded eyes of adults. Kids have the ability to live in a completely different world. It’s a truly special gift to be able to visit that place.
And that’s why Hoot’s big problem in this story is so tragic. Imagine That tells the tale of Hoot and Olive trying to figure out why Hoot has lost his imagination. He simply can’t play make believe anymore. Olive sees catastrophic floods, and fairies, and giants - but Hoot doesn’t see any of it. And his big theory for what’s wrong is one of my favorite lines of the book:
“Maybe my imaginator is broken.”
I have to admit, losing your imagination is a very sad state of affairs. It’s a somber reminder of growing up and losing your childlike wonder. And when I reflect about the inability to simply pretend, it very much reminds me an issue with self-confidence - which can be a true plague on childhood.
It’s like the little girl in Peter H. Reynold’s The Dot who was too scared to draw in art class because she didn’t think she was good at art. If we aren’t careful, somehow fear and anxiety can creep in and convince people that there is a right and wrong way to be creative. It might sound absurd, but that’s exactly why a child’s imagination needs steadfast protection and encouragement.
Just this week our family played the storytelling board game Untold: Adventure Awaits, and our 6-year-old son was inexplicably hung up on what to name his character. He was visibly distressed, and clearly worried about filling out his character sheet the wrong way. After we reminded him that there is no wrong way to use his imagination, however, he really fired up his creativity and wanted to play all day.
But it gave me that tiny glimpse of Hoot’s problem in Imagine That. Hoot is overthinking things - just like our son was. He was too in his head. That’s where the fear and anxiety come from - not the imagination. And reflecting on this leads Hoot to the most beautiful line from the book:
“Why is it, when my imagination is the thing that’s broken, it’s my heart that hurts the most?”
This is absolutely one of the best lines in the history of children’s literature. I am absolutely floored by it. It stands as a true champion of childhood imagination. It bemoans the inevitability of growing up. It touches at the meaning of life. Just imagining my own kids saying something like this is enough to bring me to tears.
But, luckily, Hoot’s imagination is not a lost cause by any means. After his beautiful description of his heartbreak, Olive realizes that they’ve been going about their search for his imagination all wrong. Imagination, they ultimately decide, comes from inside the heart.
Voss makes it very clear that both Hoot and Olive have great, big hearts - just like all kids do. And I think that means a lot more than having a large capacity for love and empathy. It’s also a very fitting symbol for our imaginations. It’s having a passion and a zest for life - that magic spark of childhood. And that’s something Hoot and Olive definitely put on full display in their adventures together.
And so I’m left more convinced than ever that it’s my noble duty to stoke the fires of our kids’ imaginations for as long as possible. I’m certain that helping our kids grow those big hearts in more ways than one is the most precious gift we can give.